Supercomputer models show severe turbulence will increase with climate change

airplane turbulence climate change
CC BY 2.0 rch850

By now most of us know about the major impacts that global climate change will cause like droughts and rising sea levels, but every once in a while we find out about strange consequences we hadn't considered before like crops having lower nutritional value or planes encountering more turbulence.

That's right. Get ready for far bumpier flights in the future.

A new study by a team at the University of Reading found that as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increase throughout this century, severe turbulence -- the kind that actually throws unbuckled passengers out of their seats -- will become two to three times more common.

Using a supercomputer, Dr. Paul Williams and his colleagues ran models of winter time clear-air turbulence at 39,000 feet when CO2 levels are twice what they are now, a mark we're expected to hit by the end of the century. They found that different turbulence strength levels will increase at different rates. The average amount of light turbulence in the atmosphere will increase by 59%, with light-to-moderate turbulence increasing by 75%, moderate by 94%, moderate-to-severe by 127%, and severe by 149%.

The cause of these increases is that climate change is generating stronger wind shears in the jet stream, which become unstable and cause turbulence.

The team now wants to investigate this phenomenon further by figuring out if flying at different altitudes or during different seasons changes the results, as well as how different climate models and scenarios affect the numbers. If action is taken and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere doesn't double, flights may stay smooth in the future.

In case CO2 emissions remain unchecked, they also will be looking to find alternative flight routes around the world that would encounter less turbulence. The researchers published the results of their study in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

Supercomputer models show severe turbulence will increase with climate change
Aircraft will have to fly new routes to avoid major bumps.

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